Ronnie van Zant was the oldest of three and hailed from the tough west side of Jacksonville, Florida, in an area where fighting was a normal pastime. He first started singing in a Gospel Church Women’s Choir, but there was another type of music that Ronnie Van Zant wanted. One he pieced together from various musical influences in his life: Shorty Medlocke (Father of Rick Medlocke of the band Blackfoot) was a former sharecropper who played a scrappy style of “Swamp Music” that Ronnie Van Zant became familiar with.
At the age of 16, Ronnie Van Zant was approached by the Band called Us. They needed a lead singer for their rhythm-and-blues Band, which was a local favorite that had competed in “Battle of the Bands” Contests. Another such band was called the Mods, which catered to the then rampant British Invasion and featured a young man named Allen Collins. Ronnie Van Zant was also influenced by a new long-hair band called The Rolling Stones. The high-energy music of The Rolling Stones and the Southern influences of Shorty Medlocke had created a dream in the young Ronnie Van Zant.
Ronnie first approached Bob Burns, who had a drum set, and thirteen-year-old guitar player Gary Rossington, who then recruited Larry Junstrom, the guy with the bass. The final member of what was to be known as The Noble Five was Allen Collins, who had the only amplifier! They began playing Psychedelic Rock, patterned after the Yardbirds and Hendrix, among other notable names.
While in high school, their gym teacher and local Real Estate Agent Leonard Skinner would often hand out suspensions because they had long hair. At the age of 16 or 17, they dropped out of school and began their musical careers. Then, while playing at local high schools, the band (as a joke) announced itself as “The Leonard Skinner Band”. Members of the crowd that knew about the gym teacher laughed and cheered at the joke, but it was the nucleus they needed. With a few alterations, they would eventually become Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The Burns Family driveway was the hangout and practice area, which drew complaints of “loud music” from the area neighbors. To escape this problem, the band practiced at a farmhouse they dubbed “Hellhouse”, located 20 miles from Jacksonville, Florida. Fishing was one of the favorite pastimes of Ronnie Van Zant. Many of the songs from the Pronounced album would be “created” during this time.
After winning a Battle of the Bands Contest in Jacksonville, they landed a spot opening for Strawberry Alarm Clock and went on their first tour. In 1970, they cut their first demos at the Quimvy Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. This was where the first recordings of “Freebird” originated. The song had little response until Allen Collins added a frenetic guitar ending. “Freebird” eventually became Lynyrd Skynyrd’s anthem.
Jimmy Johnson of Quinvy Studios was sure that Lynyrd Skynyrd had a sound worth promoting and talked them into going to the studio in Sheffield, Alabama, to begin recording again. Later, in the fall of 1971, they were joined by Rick Medlocke (Blackfoot) and Leon Wilkeson. “One More Time”, “Freebird”, and “Gimme Three Steps” were among the ones they recorded. Returning to Jacksonville, Lynyrd Skynyrd found the booking agents cold to their brand of music. They eventually commuted to Atlanta to play, borrowing gas money and then repaying the loans.
Enter Producer/Performer Al Kooper, who realized the Southern Rock scene was taking off, and Lynyrd Skynyrd seemed like the right choice. His contacts with MCA Records enabled Kooper to start the “Sounds of the South” Label. They had three groups already, and with the endorsement of Mose Jones, Lynyrd Skynyrd was added to the list as the fourth group to sign.
At this point, Leon Wilkinson leaves the band, and they round up bassist Ed King to replace him. Utilizing Al Kooper’s abilities as a producer, Lynyrd Skynyrd learns a few tricks of the trade and release their debut album - Pronounced leh-nerd skin-nerd. Shortly after the release of their album, Lynyrd Skynyrd was re-joined by Leon Wilkinson and moved Ed King to guitar. It was a way to bring the recorded music to life by reproducing the double guitar effect added in the studio by Allen Collins. “Sweet Home Alabama” was a message to Neil Young after his slander of the Southern way of life on his Harvest album (“Southern Man”). It was meant as a joke, really, because they were actually big fans of Neil Young.
Soon after recording “Sweet Home Alabama” in 1973, Lynyrd Skynyrd met with the press, who were amazed at what they heard. They stood on tables and chairs to just to get a glimpse. They were then contacted by Peter Rutledge of The Who to be the opening act for the 1973 Quadrophenia tour. On opening night, they were scared out of their wits and got drunk. It was enough to loosen them up, and the premiere was a success. Even with that experience under their belts and “Freebird” at the top of the charts, Lynyrd Skynyrd was still looking for the recognition they craved. Ronnie Van Zant was sure “Sweet Home Alabama” was the Top 40 song they were looking for, but Al Kooper disagreed. Ronnie Van Zant then made a deal - if the single with “Gimme Three Steps” didn’t make it, they would release “Sweet Home Alabama”.
So in June 1974 they released it to help the faltering Second Helping album. The controversy involving Neil Young and Watergate made it an instant hit. In September, only three short months after its release, Second Helping became a certified gold record followed by Pronounced shortly thereafter. MCA then included the Civil War Confederate Flag as a backdrop, and the Band’s “look” was cemented. Ronnie Van Zant was not a big fan of the term Southern Rock, but the band’s new face was in place. Lynyrd Skynyrd went on tour, playing one night shows, and then headed to Europe to continue their attempt to rise to the top. Exhausted from the constant traveling, Bob Burns left Lynyrd Skynyrd for health reasons, and Artimus Pyle was his replacement.
This inspired Ronnie Van Zant to write the song “Am I Losin’”. Lynyrd Skynyrd returned to Atlanta and continued touring with Artimus on drums. In 1975 they went into the studio and came up with Second Helping, which included the feature song “Saturday Night Special”. To promote this album, they again went on tour. Many drunken nights during this 90-day gig resulted in Ed King splitting during the night. The “Torture Tour”, as it became known to the band was completed by Allen Collins and Gary Rossington sharing Ed King’s job.
Often, a guy behind the amplifiers would remind them of which songs they were supposed to play. Still, Lynyrd Skynyrd was not happy. Their new manager, Peter Rutledge, recruited Tom Dowd to take control. The first four songs on Gimme Back My Bullets were recorded in Los Angeles, and after another tour, they returned to Georgia in November to complete the album. The huge fan support for Gimme Back My Bullets resulted in the band not playing it, mostly due to the reference to a . 38 Special hand gun. Fans at their concerts would actually throw live bullets on stage whenever they played the theme song! (Fearing one might go off caused them to not play it).
In July 1976 Lynyrd Skynyrd released their first live album entitled One More from The Road. Not having to go into the recording studio gave them a chance to look for the elusive third guitarist they needed. They found the answer in The Honkettes, a female gospel band. Lynyrd Skynyrd had toured with this group of Gospel singers, and Cassie Gaines, a member of this group, made plans for her brother to play, even before he was introduced to Lynyrd Skynyrd. His name was Steve Gaines. But it seems Cassie forgot to tell him! His familiarity with Lynyrd Skynyrd had influenced Crawdaddy, the band he was in. One of the songs they performed was “Saturday Night Special”. While Steve was surprised at this turn of events, his guitar-playing ability soon had Ronnie Van Zant and the rest of Lynyrd Skynyrd in shock. At the age of 26, Steve Gaines was already a veteran in the music industry, and it showed when he stepped on the stage to jam to “T for Texas”.
It was the influence of Allen Collins that eventually landed Steve Gaines the job, and he was called two weeks later to accompany the band to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for a gig. Following this concert, the band began rehearsing for the live album concert. They only had a month before this concert, but it was all they needed. “One More from the Road” is truly a Lynyrd Skynyrd classic. Even though they had some problems, when “One More From the Road” was finally released, it climbed to the Top Ten in no time, and went to Gold and Platinum status. This elevated them into the upper echelon of the music business.
The newly found prestige was well accepted and earned. Shortly after the end of the tour, they again went into the Miami recording studios, only to find Tom Dowd unavailable. However, he sent a replacement, Barry Rudolph, to fill in. Rudolph’s previous recording experience with Waylon Jennings was well received, and the band was able to re-do “You Got That Right” and “That Smell”. Tom Dowd did not return to finish the project, and if you look, you’ll see there are no producer credits on the album. Lynyrd Skynyrd released Street Survivors in October 1977. It was only three days later that Lynyrd Skynyrd private jet ran out of fuel and crashed in a wooded area near McComb, Mississippi, as it attempted to land. Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines and Dean Kilpatrick were all killed instantly. The remaining band members were also injured, but survived the ordeal.
Beyond the tragedy, the history, the raging guitars and the killer songs, ultimately, Lynyrd Skynyrd is about an indomitable will - about survival of spirit; unbowed, uniquely American, stubbornly resolute.
With their first set of new studio material since 2003’s Vicious Cycle, legendary rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd returns with God & Guns (2009), on Loud & Proud/Roadrunner Records. Recorded in Nashville in 2008-2009, the project was interrupted - but, tellingly, not ended - by the deaths of founding member/keyboardist Billy Powell and longtime bassist Ean Evans earlier this year.
Driven by core members Gary Rossington (guitar), Johnny Van Zant (vocals) and Rickey Medlocke (guitar), along with longtime drummer Michael Cartellone, Lynyrd Skynyrd has recorded an album (“under duress, as usual,” according to Van Zant) that very much lives up to the legacy begun some 35 years ago in Jacksonville, Florida, and halted for a decade by the 1977 plane crash that killed three band members, including Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines. Since then, the band tragically lost Allen Collins, Leon Wilkeson and Huey Thomasson, yet they rock on.
With the passing of Powell and Evans, “a lot of people probably expected us to say enough is enough,” admits Medlocke. But that would not be the way of this Rock & Roll Hall of Fame powerhouse. With a catalog of over 60 albums and sales beyond 30 million, Lynyrd Skynyrd remains a cultural icon that appeals to all generations, and God & Guns is a fitting addition to the canon. The Skynyrd Nation awaits.
“We wanted to show the people that not only are we doing the old material, keeping the music going, but we still have some new tricks up our sleeves, too,” says founding guitarist Gary Rossington.
Returning to the studio after the death of Powell, whose keyboards can be heard on more than half the songs on God & Guns, was “very difficult, I ain’t gonna lie to you,” says Van Zant. “But we got through it, as Lynyrd Skynyrd seems to always do. Music’s a great healer. These songs needed to be out there, this record needed to be made. Gary, Rickey and myself just said ‘let’s go for it, let’s get this thing done.”
Unfortunately, coping with loss is familiar to this band. “We just kind of fell back in,” says Rossington. “We’ve been doing this a long time, so you just kind of do what you do. As you get older, you get a little more used to it. You know it’s coming, and it’s coming to you, too. I just thank God for every day and all the time I had with the guys that aren’t with us anymore.”
The crying is over and now it’s time to rock. “We’ve had some really bad moments this year already, and I’m glad we’re able to pick ourselves up by our boot straps and just continue to play,” says Medlocke. “For us to weather through this makes this record even more special. I’m sure Billy and Ean are looking down upon us with big smiles.”
With noted rock producer Bob Marlette, input from guitarist John 5, and a wealth of material written by the band and a cadre of elite Skynyrd-minded songwriters, a remarkable album emerged. “We never really worked with producers that well, we kind of always wanted to do it our way,” admits Rossington. “But Bob Marlette came on and he’s such a great guy; he figured out how to talk to us musically, and we became friends instantly. He had a lot of fresh ideas and ways to do things, and also wanted to capture the old sounds, too.”
Of John 5, Rossington adds, “he’s probably one of the best guitar players I’ve ever played with, and I’ve played with a lot of great ones. He just lives with a guitar on him, and he knows that neck like nobody I’ve ever seen.”
With a backbone of Southern rock and country, passionate Van Zant vocals, and trademark layered guitars, God & Guns manages to maintain the iconic Skynyrd punch while sounding completely contemporary. Sure to attract attention in these politically divided times is the title track, which harbors a sense of menace and unwillingness to back down that hearkens back to Skynyrd’s earliest days. The band knows the song, and others like “That Ain’t My America”, will have their critics, but Medlocke says listeners should get beyond the title.
“It’s not just the words ‘God and guns.’ you gotta look past that and look at what this country was founded on: freedom,” Medlocke says. “Everybody should be able to make their own decisions and not be led around by a nose ring and told what to do and when to do it.”
And if some critics don’t like it, “that’s called freedom of choice,” says Medlocke, who carries his Native American heritage with pride. “I’m sure some critics will look at it, God & Guns, the rednecks are back.’ Well, the guys in this band aren’t rednecks, Rickey Medlocke’s the only damn redneck in this band ‘cause I got red skin.”
The title track, along with the unmistakable Skynyrd bite of the first single, “Still Unbroken”, form thematic songs for an album laden with attitude, heart and purpose. “Skynyrd’s about tradition,” says Medlocke. “We are guys that don’t go around preaching about our own personal or political beliefs, although I’m sure you could probably guess mine. In this record is personal tragedy, personal relationships and being on the road, all under that umbrella of real life. That’s what we think, that’s what we believe, and we stand next to that title, God & Guns.”
To portray Skynyrd as a bunch of “gun nuts” would be incorrect, according to Van Zant. “I’m kind of like Ronnie, ‘handguns are made for killing,’ and I’ve never seen anybody shoot a deer with a .38,” he says. “I do own a bunch of rifles, I live out in the swamp, and you’ve got to protect yourself.”
Skynyrd is a band, after all, that has never shied away from standing up and speaking for a segment of the population whose voices are seldom heard. “Everybody’s so scared to say stuff these days, that’s not what I’m about,” says Van Zant. “We live in America, we can speak our minds. These are our values. That doesn’t mean we’re always right in everybody’s mind. Hopefully, we don’t offend a bunch of people. And if we do, well, get a record deal, man, and make your own songs.”
This is a band well aware of the responsibility that comes with putting the name Lynyrd Skynyrd on anything, be it an album or a concert. “We feel like we have to keep the standards high,” says Rossington. “I wouldn’t put this record out, I’d fight not to, if I didn’t think it was good.”
And so Skynyrd stands, “still unbroken,” in 2009. “People may say, ‘they need the money,’ well I don’t think any of us need the money,” Van Zant says. “It’s just that we love the music, it’s bigger than the money, it’s not even about that any more. We have to make a living, sure, but it’s about the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and what it stands for, what the fans are all about. There’s nothing like getting out there playing a great show with Skynyrd and seeing people love this music.”
Adds Rossington, “We’re still standing, still keeping the music going. We wanted to do the guys who aren’t with us any more proud, and keep the name proud, too.”
Legendary rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd releases a fiery slice of Southern style guitar rock heaven in Last of a Dyin’ Breed (2012). This is the kind of record guaranteed to feed the needs of the multi-generational Skynyrd Nation, and continue the renewed vigor the band exhibited with their previous album, 2009’s God & Guns. For the passionate, longtime fans of the band, this is Skynyrd at the top of their game, complete with instantly memorable songs, more hooks than a tackle box, and a blistering three-guitar attack at full power.
Led by core members Gary Rossington (guitar), Johnny Van Zant (vocals) and Rickey Medlocke (guitar), along with longtime drummer Michael Cartellone, Skynyrd has recorded an album that continues to build on the legacy that began over 35 years ago in Jacksonville, Florida. Joining them in the studio and on the road are new bassist Johnny Colt (Black Crowes, Train) guitarist Mark “Sparky” Matejka (a “Nashville cat, just a pickin’ fool,” according to Rossington), and keyboardist Peter Keys, who replaced Powell on the God & Guns tour.
Last of A Dyin’ Breed re-ignites the in-studio alchemy the band found with Guns producer Bob Marlette, and the sound is traditional Skynyrd blended to perfection with the edge of immediacy. In short, it’s rock n roll for the times.